Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world has come, blasting into theatres amidst a cacophony of fervent hatred and praise. It is only appropriate that this film would stir such controversy; it’s the first meeting of two of pop culture’s most timeless figures, legends who have defined a medium for nearly eighty years: Batman and Superman. So what did I think?

The short answer: I’ve seen it twice and I really enjoyed it.

The long answer: Prepare yourself and read on.

Batman v Superman, like its predecessor, Man of Steel, was destined to be a polarizing film. People still talk about Man of Steel nearly three years after its release, debating the heroism of Superman’s actions during its finale where a large portion of Metropolis (Superman’s home city) was levelled, partly due to Superman’s fight with fellow Kryptonian, General Zod. It is refreshing to see a sequel that directly addresses the issues people had with the previous film and that is exactly what Batman v Superman does for the majority of its run time. It begins with the events of Man of Steel’s finale, viewed from the perspective of human witness on the ground; in this case, it’s the billionaire entrepreneur and alter-ego of Batman, Bruce Wayne. Wayne navigates the horrors of a city under attack, threading his way through terrified civilians and debris in hopes of making his way to the Wayne Enterprises building before it is destroyed. He doesn’t. People close to him die. Families are broken. Clutching a possibly orphaned child in the wreckage of his building, Wayne finally seems to understand the massive level of destruction of which Superman is capable. Moved by these events, Wayne begins to prepare for the day that he will face Superman, convinced that it is only inevitable that a being of such power would eventually decide to rule the world instead of aiding it.

The premise is immediately interesting given its clear focus on consequences, something that few other comic book films seem to address – oddly enough, Captain America: Civil War seems to be exploring this subject as well later this year. Superman’s alien origins and his politics of interference that function beyond any borders or international laws, have become an issue of controversy, given that he acts according to his own will and no governing entity. How then is he supposed to dispense his justice? Who does he save? Should anyone be allowed to have such power over life and death? These are only a few of the heady questions raised by the film and I admire writer Chris Terrio (who won an Oscar for writing 2012’s excellent Argo) for attempting to explore the fantastic through real-world problems.

The inherent dilemma created by the mixed reaction to Superman’s heroism stems from his unfaltering goodness. He’s confused and troubled that his efforts have led to more strife; a Reeves Era superhero embroiled in an age of modern ambiguity. Determined to honor the memory of both of his fathers, Superman believes he must use his powers for good, but given his god-like ability, this means actively choosing between evils daily. Going to one location to save a ship from a pirate hijacking means letting a group of workers die in a factory fire. Interfering in a struggle between African militant groups to save an innocent sets the stage for even greater violence once he’s gone. The ugly truth of Superman’s existence is that he can never be at all places at all times, and no matter his goodness nor his ardent desire to help the people of Earth, people will die. The best part of this dilemma is that there is no clear answer and this was perhaps my favorite philosophical point of the film. Like full-time Good Guy Steve Rogers, Superman is a hero hounded by his conscience and ultimately, he must learn that he can’t save everyone, but it is the attempt that is most important. The wide-ranging consequences of Superman’s actions are rarely expounded upon in this way in the source material since the comic book medium is more focused on singular events or arcs. Though you probably wouldn’t write a dissertation on it, I still feel that Batman v Superman raises these questions and plumbs their philosophical depths in a multifaceted, emotionally satisfying way. Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of the philosophical questions posed aren’t exactly satisfying to a general audience.

Thankfully, Henry Cavill makes for a hero worthy of the audience’s belief. Though his Superman is not necessarily charismatic, he is always well-meant and earnest. Physically, you can’t get much closer to the character’s appearance in the comics and Cavill looks (almost impossibly) more jacked than he was in Man of Steel. The size of his physique and the physical dimension of his performance make the miraculous look plausible as Superman lifts impossible weights and fights powerful foes. Meanwhile, Cavill’s humble alter ego also avoids the cartoonish clumsiness of Christopher Reeve’s Clark, instead portraying him as an intrepid reporter often meddling in affairs above his pay grade. Overall, despite the odd flat line reading, Cavill remains a great Superman.

Representing the other side of the coin is Batman. Ben Affleck shines as the Dark Knight, embodying the Bruce Wayne that I’ve always wanted to see onscreen. Like all film adaptations, Affleck’s Batman is an amalgamation of different sources pulled from the source material. This representation in particular derives most heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which featured an older, disillusioned Bruce Wayne, more troubled and brutal than ever. And this Batman is brutal. He beats people senseless, brands criminals during interrogation, and isn’t one to shy away from gross bodily harm, but he is indisputably Batman. Unlike the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dark Knight Trilogy, this Batman will never stop; he couldn’t even if he wanted to. He’s a soldier and an admitted criminal, working outside the bounds of the law, dispensing his own brand (heh) of justice. However, the events of the film’s prologue have marked a turning point for Bruce Wayne; he’s begun to question if all of his struggle, all of his pain (evidenced by a battered, bullet-ridden Robin costume that stands sentinel in the Bat Cave) has been for nothing. Despite the protests of his faithful manservant Alfred (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons), Bruce becomes convinced that his legacy will be ridding the world of its most imminent threat: Superman.

Affleck is the perfect Batman. Beyond the excellent, Kevlar appearance of his new suit (Miller-esque short ears and all), Affleck’s Batman is a terror. Above all, Batman is supposed to be imposing, a man whose very appearance should inspire fear, and that he does. He’s even more horrifying when he does burst into action, cracking heads, punching faces, and using all variety of gadgets in a manner not yet seen in a Batman film. As Bruce Wayne, Affleck also excels, more of a beleaguered, functional drunk than Christian Bale’s smarmy doofus. Yet the rough edges and hints of darkness remain. Affleck’s greatest accomplishment is this nuance: a superhero who plays at being a man; a deeply troubled, borderline sociopath whose dedication to justice only just eclipses his need to distribute pain.

The holy DC trinity would not be complete without Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman. I won’t spoil how she factors into the film, but I will say that Gal Gadot makes the most of her limited screen time as the Amazonian Princess. She imbues the character with age and wisdom while also maintaining the fiery spark that Wonder Woman is known for; even though she plays at being an aristocrat, she is a warrior at heart and when she enters the fray she is truly impressive. Given the initial, stupid controversy of Gal Gadot’s casting (with lame, misogynistic complaints ranging from “she’s not muscular enough” to “her breasts being too small”), I’m glad that Gadot proved naysayers wrong. Her strong portrayal of the character and the immediately memorable theme that often accompanies her make me extremely excited for her first solo outing in next year’s Wonder Woman.

Finally, a superhero film must have a villain; though Batman and Superman’s relationship is largely antagonistic for the majority of the film, Lex Luthor fills the role of the primary villain. Much has been said about Jesse Eisenberg’s idiosyncratic, neurotic portrayal of Lex Luthor. Though I am partial to the version presented in the animated Justice League and Superman: The Animated Series’ (voiced by the awesome Clancy Brown), Eisenberg’s Luthor worked for me. He is a man who laments that he is brilliant in mind, but weak in body, hateful that anyone would worship Superman when he is inherently alien and other. Disturbed that most of the world would eagerly embrace Superman after the desolation of half of Metropolis, Lex sets into motion a series of events in order to show the world that man, not God, remains the ultimate power on Earth (at least for now…). His immense wealth, manic speech, and difficulty maintaining conversation further solidify his position as an outsider, and one gets the impression that he enjoys that removal though he seems like a person unsatisfied with his social position, always striving to move higher, but not knowing how to earn it. The immediate extremity of his actions are representative of that removal from humanity, his belief that he is acting in the best interest of the world despite what the general populace might say is an example of his vast ego. Though the performance is the broadest of the main players, I still enjoyed Eisenberg and am excited to see him further develop this character as the DC universe continues.

The supporting cast is also strong. Laurence Fishburne reprises his role as Daily Planet Editor Perry White, a welcome sense of plain-speaking levity for a rather dour film. Likewise Jeremy Iron’s Alfred Pennyworth is a charming, yet stern voice of reason; he’s clearly ex-military, more grease-monkey than butler and evidently influenced by Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One. I can’t wait to see more of his relationship with Ben Affleck in the forthcoming solo Batman films. Amy Adams continues to be a good Lois Lane, hard-nosed and determined to ask Clark the hard questions that he’d rather avoid. Her goodness makes Clark a better person and in this manner, I found myself far more emotionally invested in their relationship in this film than I did during Man of Steel.

As far as the actual construction of the film goes, I did not find it convoluted as many negative reviews suggested. However, I will say that this was clearly a longer film cut for time – the deluxe home edition will have an additional thirty minutes of footage, including Jena Malone in a role rumored to be Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Oracle/Batgirl. That being said, as far as direction goes, it’s a stylistic showcase of director Zack Snyder’s most apparent strength: his eye. Aided by cinematographer Larry Fong (Now You See Me, 300), Snyder once again manages to capture the essence of the source material on film. The shots are artfully framed, the action dynamic and filmed with clarity and style, which is saying something considering the effects-driven madness of the finale.

While visually stunning, the score is also worthy of note. Hans Zimmer returns with all the bombast and creativity that made his Superman theme in Man of Steel so memorable. However, this time he also enlisted the help of Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL, who’s had a whirlwind twelve months with his stellar scores for Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool. Not wanting to compete with his Batman score for Christopher Nolan’s films, Zimmer handed off the Batman portions of the film to Holkenborg, who has done some great work. Holkenborg has taken Batman’s theme away from the percussive, almost mechanical sound of Zimmer’s score and driven it back toward more gothic, Danny Elfman territory; it’s all blasting horns and ululating choral swells, further solidifying Batman’s darkness in opposition to the light, hopeful tone of Superman. Beyond the titular characters, Lex Luthor’s villainous theme also shines: a mixture of grumbling, low piano notes accompanied by playful, lilting violin notes. Even more impressive is Wonder Woman’s aforementioned electric cello theme that will, without a doubt, remain long in your memory whether you’d like it to or not. It’s catchy, immediately exotic, and definitely representative of the warrior culture of Wonder Woman and her people.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is bound to upset some people. Though it addresses the criticisms of its predecessor, it also doubles down in a number of places, and for that I almost respect it more. The makers of this film are committed to their vision; it may not be my vision or your vision, but it is the only cinematic version of these characters that we’re going to get for the foreseeable future (there are already over ten films planned for future release). That being said, I really enjoyed this film. It raised complex moral and philosophical questions and cast familiar characters and themes in a different, unexpected light. The acting was universally great to excellent, the clear standout being Ben Affleck’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Technically, the film merits praise and demands to be seen on the biggest screen with the loudest sound system one can find. Overall, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice effectively reestablishes two of pop culture’s most important characters and sets the stage for greater adventures and struggles in the endlessly fascinating DC Universe.

Whether you doubt my words or find yourself excited by them, the only way to know what you think of the film is to see it.

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